Festive Rituals of the World: Snowmen at Christmas


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Snow effigies can be made of other materials. Image by jdurham.

During Christmas celebrations, it is customary to make snow effigies commonly referred to as ‘Snow Men.’

Children make these snow sculptures, generally in parks and in their own front or back gardens.  The effigies are actually shaped more like two or three huge blobs, one slightly bigger representing the body, and  one smaller one on top depicting the head.  Sometimes the kids also add a middle blob, but the presence or absence of a middle has no ritual significance.

Sculptors add stones, leaves, sticks, buttons, vegetables and other objects to loosely represent eyes, mouth, nose, hands, and clothing.  People add scarves, brooms and even hats.  Adults help to make these anthropomorphic effigies more elaborate.

Ice-Age Cool

The representation of the human form is as old as human beings themselves.  Neolithic peoples painted the inside of caves depicting hunts and scenes from everyday life, and stone age artists depicted sculptures of idealised Earth Goddesses using, well, stone.

Why people might have started using snow to fashion anthropomorphic figures is not quite clear.  One theory is that snow is softer than stone and can be sculpted without any tools.  During the ice-age, humans attempted to produce idealised effigies of what a human of their clan would look like, and, since matriarchs and alpha females ran things at the time, they produced snow figures of a female shape – a voluptuous, rounded fertility figure to  boast about the clan’s attributes.

So, what we refer to as ‘Snowmen’ probably started out as Snowwomen – Snow-supermodels of the time. This certainly explains the rounded shape expanding around the bosom and lower body. How the gender change occurred throughou the millennia is a mystery waiting to be solved.

Fast forward 25000 thousand years or so, and snow effigies are a central decorative feature of Christmas.  People  make Snowmen in their gardens, and if there isn’t any real snow they even use plastic figures that look like snowmen- an effigy of an effigy. These artificial representations are often  animated by flashing electric lights, and can be inflatable.

There have even been reports of ‘snowmen’ built of twigs and sand in Southern Hemisphere countries such as Australia.

Snowmen Devoid of Religious Significance: Safe as Snow

The reasons and the origins behind the popularity of the Snowman effigy as a decorative feature of the main West European winter celebration are unclear.  Some date the Snowman’s origins to the Middle-Ages, some have linked snow effigies to the worship of Jack Frost, but his -or her- association with Christmas, along with the Snow itself, took place once again during Victorian Britain, when  Pagan rites and folk traditions from Europe, especially Germany, were absorbed  as part of a revamped Christian festival, along with the Christmas tree and Santa.

Queen Victoria always loved cheery syncretic celebrations: the mixture of Yule, the Winter Solstice, North European cold winters, and Christmas produced, amongst other glittery party accessories, the cult of snow at Christmas, and an effigy which later on became the subject of a popular hit, ‘Frosty the Snowman’.

Bing Crosby sang about dreaming of a White Christmas. ‘Frosty’ is also, ironically, devoid of religious symbolism, and, like snow, able to be moulded into our own likeness. Snowmen are culturally uncontroversial, and universally accessible as winter decorations.  They are inoffensive to any belief system, or lack of it. Anyone can make a Snowman in their garden, as long as there is snow.  Snowmen are ageless, and undefined in terms of ethnicity and gender.  Despite their name, their blobby shapelessness leaves room for flexibility.

Snowmen and Snowwomen: Unisex Effigies

Some people give Snowmen female accessories such as handbags, and to be fair most of their attire is unisex – which is more than can be said of Santa, an ageing patriarchal figure by any standards.

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